I was recently shocked and embarrassed to discover that not only was there a mail order tea company I hadn't heard of but that it had actually won the award for best online retailer in the UK's Observer Food Monthly Magazine. Suitably ashamed I decided I needed to check out the Rare Tea Company forthwith.
I had no trouble finding their website and could immediately see why the company had made such an impression. Most tea retailers' websites are completely overwhelming, stocking hundreds of teas with detailed descriptions that would put the most pompous wine-buff to shame. But Rare Teas have taken a much simpler approach. They stock just eight types of leaves (plus six limited edition teas which I presume change from time to time): four different white and silver tipped teas; a green tea; an oolong; and two black teas. There is something so refreshing about having most of the decision making taken out of the buying process. Instead of deciding whether to go for a Wuyi Yan or Ti Kuan Yong oolong you could just pick the oolong leaves chosen by founder Henrietta Lovell who has been sourcing her own tea for the last five years. For the tea enthusiast rather than the connoisseur it's an absolutely brilliant idea.
Keen to try some of this tea for myself I ordered the award winning Silver Tip White Tea and a tin of the Emperor's Breakfast Tea. The very next day the beautifully packaged tins arrived with a hand-written note from Henrietta, the Tea Lady, herself and with it a small sample of the 2nd Flush Muscatel Darjeeling for me to try. So far, so very good. What could be nicer than a personal note and a free gift! But what of the tea itself?
I started with the Emperor's Breakfast and have to admit to being disappointed. I found it a bit “thin” and lacking complexity (sorry if I'm sounding like one of those pompous wine buffs myself here). Perhaps it's designed to be drunk without milk but that's not the way I drink my breakfast tea. I suspect I've been spoiled by some very good black teas lately (more of that later) but once I finish the tin I can't see myself reordering. At this point I was starting to worry that my palate was totally out of step with the rest of the tea drinking population but no, all was not lost. The Silver Tip White Tea was an altogether more agreeable experience.
White tea is, of course, subtle and light, but Rare Tea's was also lovely: light and refreshing but with a depth that I found really pleasing. The quality of the Silver Tip White has made me keen to try the green tea next as I'm running low.
Finally, I made a cup of the Darjeeling – the free sample was enough for at least two cups – and found that far preferable to the breakfast tea I'd ordered. Perhaps I just don't particularly like black tea from China; or maybe the Rare Tea Company haven't quite cracked the black tea thing. Either way I'd be really keen to hear from anyone who has tried any of their other teas. Given their excellent customer service/care I really want to like them. But perhaps I should be happy that I'm starting to build a collection of favourite teas from different companies. After all, I wouldn't want to stop exploring new tea retailers would I?